The trouble with good ideas is they often inspire mediocre imitation. When Ramaphosa sang ‘Send me’, the words, the context and force of the music and the re-framing of deployment as answering the call of the people, all gave the quote real emotional force. So then Malusi Gigaba’s speechwriter got in on the act…
Now, don’t get me wrong, Kendrick Lamar has some great lyrics. Him & Dre jammin’ on “everything you buy/ taxes will deny” might have worked brilliantly in this context. But “everything’s gonna be all right”? For a start it’s what songwriters call a floating lyric. It crops up everywhere. Do a word-search and you might find it in a thousand other songs. So not original; not worth attributing even to demonstrate that the Finance Minister is down with the kids.
And then there was that excruciating faux-American accent. That, I fear, was all Gigabyte’s own idea. Lame.
Please don’t do it again.
There have been times when ANC Presidents have very publicly admired the immediate, visceral, power of critical art-making. The late OR Tambo, attending the London theatre debut of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, acknowledged: “It took [them] two hours to address what we have been trying to address for 20 years.”
The past nine years have not been among those times.
Certainly, some energetic workers in the Department of Arts and Culture have ensured regular (if sometimes formulaic), correct and timely acknowledgments of artists who fought apartheid and brought joy in previous eras. Honours have been awarded to those still living; eulogies offered for those who have passed. Yet others – sometimes highly-placed – have used arts and culture in the same way the fiefdoms of other departments have been used: as vehicles for individual self-enrichment and the distortion of the liberation narrative.
For art and artists working now, offering immediate and angry responses to the patriarchy, commodification, silencing and corruption that have deformed public life, that last has been the dominant response. Lawsuits have been launched (then quietly dropped) against cartoonists and satirical works, and there have been strident calls for censorship, along with the metonymic invocation of “culture”.
“Culture” (and this is a confusion that infested the first, though not the most recent, version of our not-yet-finalised arts and culture White Paper) has been invoked to stand for the past, for ‘legends’ only, for the art that was made, for the outlawing of debate around social understandings shaped in earlier eras, and for the reinvention of tribalism. This was the kind of static conceptualisation of culture that permitted Khwezi’s rape accused to justify his action as “entering isibhaya sika bab’wakhe (her father’s kraal)”: erasing the attacked woman’s existence as a person, acknowledging only the man entering and the father owning.
Within this framework, of course, the vibrancy, syncretism and constant iconoclastic discourse of African urban culture has come in for particular opprobrium, perhaps best crystallised in attacks in 2012 on “blacks…who become too clever.”
But that was then. Two days ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa concluded his State of the Nation Address (SONA) with a quote not from some colonialist poet, or even a laureate of our own such as Keorapetse Kgositsile, but from the recently departed jazz trumpeter, Bra’ Hugh Ramapolo Masekela and the song Thuma Mina ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XvHuuCauJNM): “I wanna be there when the people start to turn it around/…Send me”
And, in that context, the quote signified a great deal more than simply a well deserved tribute to a distinguished jazzman recently passed.
Jazz, and Bra’ Hugh, grew up in Sophiatown: beloved of the klevahs who inhabited that epicentre of iconoclasm under apartheid. It was the syncretic music of non-tribal – and often explicitly anti-tribalist – black workers, whose acknowledgment of their shared South African-ness fuelled their struggles to transform the country in the interests of all. In citing it, Ramaphosa signalled the end of an era of narrow regional favouritism.
The lyrics matter too. As all art with real power does, Masekela’s song – first recorded in
2006 and updated on every subsequent live outing – pays respect to heritage via a long-established Zulu hymn, but creates a unique new song about the issues we face now. Poverty has not yet ended; the war against AIDS is not won, gender oppression and violence have received dog-whistles of encouragement over the past nine years through the statements and actions of powerful men in public life. The speech, and the song, promise energy to deal with these issues.
“I wanna lend a hand/ I wanna be there for the victims of violence and abuse…Send me”, the song says. It is the song of a deployee, deployed not merely by one party but by all those desperately needing change.
Despite what some academics would assert, of course, practice is harder than theory. Laying out the broad principles for change is easier than making effective implementation happen, and we’ll still need the critical citizens – and artists – to help in the process and sound loud alarm bells if it goes off-track.
Arts and culture did not feature in SONA apart from that magnificent song. They could have fitted well into Ramaphosa’s discourse, because what has happened to the cultural space has not been immune from the rot, and what will be done about it will be one barometer of the reality of any new dawn. Culture is a living manifestation of society; we shape it with our own hands and actions as we live. We need from government an environment that does not dictate what culture should do, but genuinely enables access for those who create with brushes, notes or words, and those who participate in creation by dancing, viewing, reading and offering feedback. We need that White Paper finalised (with more popular debate processes as necessary to get it right). We need tangible support for the creation and consumption of the arts. And we also need a minister who can bring the sector some joy and inspiration…
Yet, despite those gaps, there was powerful beauty in that Thuma Mina moment because it signalled that we may now have a President who understands and respects that ‘culture’ includes the new songs and art (and, in the wake of Inxeba, new films too) that we are making now, about the things we experience now. A president who will not mock, or attempt to censor, the diversity of voices in the contested space that arts and culture must always be. And who will, perhaps, carry on listening and actually hearing what we say.
This time, soprano/alto saxophonist Joel Benjamin, altoist Jade de Waal, tenorman Simon Bates and baritone and flute player Gareth Harvey have stretched their musical horizons wider. The material includes poetry from Qaqamba Mbili, Allison-Claire Hoskins and Emile XY, drama, songs from Maya Spector and Monique Hellenberg, and compositions from Randy Brecker, Bheki Mseleku, Abdullah Ibrahim, the two singers, Harvey himself and Martin Wolfaardt. Genres stretch beyond jazz to contemporary chamber music and, in the case of Hellenberg’s song, something very close to smoochy Rn’b.
Despite the existence of the earlier EP, in fact, Système Diabolique feels a lot like most debut albums: a sampler of everything the outfit has to offer. If you liked the funky feel of Peewee Ellis’s Chicken on Saxit’s previous outing, you’ll probably enjoy the opener: Brecker’s 34th n’Lex. If your tastes veer more towards new music, Wolfaardt’s Brain Meltdown and Harvey’s title track (with thoughtful soloing from de Waal) may appeal more. If South African repertoire is your interest then the closer, Ibrahim’s Chisa (with a gorgeous solo from Benjamin paying stylistic homage to Robbie Jansen, Basil Coetzee and that whole era of Cape Town jazz) will definitely hit the sweet spot.
Accompanying poetry always poses challenges for instrumentalists: do you provide embellishments to underline the mood, Greek-chorus-like commentary, or simple punctuation with the reed equivalent of vocal doo-wops? Saxit deploy all these tactics and more, creating, for example, a bitter, foreboding commentary on Hoskins’ Sobukwe/Mandela poem Burning Messiah, and mirroring the emotions of Mbili’s feminist call to resistance, Rise.
The most texturally interesting track is the collaboration with Black Noise veteran XY on Story of the Wind. There’s a gentle sonic pun there, because ‘wind’ is not only the theme of the English/Afrikaans verses, but also the power behind the instruments. As well as the melodic sax sounds we know, the reeds provide the blowing gusts of a Cape SouthEaster, the fluting of Khoisan pipes, the songs of birds, and clacking instrument keys that might be blown leaves or dancers’ leg-rattles. If I had to pick a favourite track, Story of the Wind would probably be mine.
Like their earlier outing, Saxit’s Système Diabolique is finely played. What makes a saxophone quartet successful, though, is not merely strong, accurate playing. What we listen for is both the individuality of the different sax voices – and that comes through clearly on this album – but also a collective voice that can give the ensemble its own identity. In both adventurous programme choices and in the very evident respect and enjoyment each player shows for the others’ space and style, Saxit are staking their claim to a very distinctive space in South Africa’s soundscape.
Saxophone quartets around the world, like Saxit, make very interesting music indeed. Here are a few others you might also enjoy:
New year, new ears. We’re a month in, and already the jazz releases are landing. With Mabuta’s Welcome to this World (https://soundcloud.com/mabuta/), Saxit’s Système Diabolique, and Thandi Ntuli’s Exiled already landing, Bokani Dyer’s new outing well on the way (the material premiered at the Orbit last week), and more promised, it looks as though it will be yet another immensely productive year – hopefully not so ignored as in 2017 by the mainstream press. We can dream…
For Mabuta’s chief architect, bassist Shane Cooper, liminality has long been the name of the game (My memory suggests there was a track called Liminal Man a while back, but Google can’t fetch it for me). He’s interested in the borderlands: the places where emotions, genres, players and sounds meet and cross and has his own two identities as jazz bassist and electro artist Card on Spokes. The core of Mabuta is Cooper, pianist Bokani Dyer, reedman Sisonke Xonti, trumpeter Robin Fassie-Kock and drummer Marlon Witbooi, but the album paints with many more colours. The sax line for the recording includes Buddy Wells, Chris Engel, Janus van der Merwe and UK guest Shabaka Hutchings, guitarist Reza Khota provides more string sounds, and percussion master Tlale Makhene makes an appearance too.
Successfully crowdfunded, the eight-track album takes its name from the Japanese word for ‘eyelid’, representing a doorway between the worlds of reality and dreams, but sonically the project also explores the meeting of electronic and acoustic sounds, That particular margin will be stretched further later this year, when a remix EP including producers Daedalus, Slugabed, Kid Fonque and more will; be released.
A bassist exploring the intersections between club music and jazz is obviously at the border gate to Thundercat territory, but Cooper plus Hutchings or Xonti, while clearly part of the same musical generation, don’t really sound like Stephen Bruner and Kamasi Washington. As well as the musicians’ distinctive individual creativity, there’s more of Africa, India – and European contemporary jazz – in the palette of colours Mabuta draws from.
The track Tafattala, for example twines sinuously between the musical East and West (if there’s an American point of reference, it might be Trane or indeed Alice Coltrane), guided by Khota. Beneath theWaves conjures with liquid and solid: fluid keyboards and bubbling strings against the hard, shiny metal of horns and reeds. As We Drift Away grounds Fassie-Kock’s dreamy, effects-shaded trumpet in the natural wood and ivory of Dyer’s piano. Log Out, Shut Down is a solid, Fela-style Afro-rocker demonstrating how ‘electric Africa’ was never a paradox. (That’s definitely a track for dancers – but only clever ones.) Each tune in a different way plays with sonic or conceptual poles, and explores how they can meet, diverge and meet again. It’s this context that fuels Hutchings’ fierce soloing on Fences – it’s impossible not to think, inside this kind of music, about the absurdity and obscenity of all the structures that divide, including Trump’s “big beautiful wall” and the ones we erect against migrants in this country too.
All in all, Welcome to this World, is an auspicious start to the music year, even if we perhaps don’t hear as much of Cooper as we might like; it’s a bassist’s album in conception, but not a bass album. Only on the final track, Tunnel, (under the Fences, perhaps?) does he take a substantial solo, before the intricate, drum n’bass-ish feel of Witbooi’s riddim dissolves into sheets of sound.
You can hear Mabuta present the material live (with Khota, but without the album’s larger lineup) at the Orbit this Friday 9 and Saturday 10 February. In that more intimate format and setting, it’ll sound different again, which is why live music rules – but you should certainly buy the album too.